Overnight Defense: Army to drop photos from soldier records to reduce racial bias | House defense bill backs $1B pandemic preparedness fund | Bill targets potential troop drawdowns

Overnight Defense: Army to drop photos from soldier records to reduce racial bias | House defense bill backs $1B pandemic preparedness fund | Bill targets potential troop drawdowns
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Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: The Army will stop using photos of soldiers on records used when choosing to promote service members and for other personnel matters in an effort to halt racial bias in such decisions, top Army officials said Thursday.

The move — part of a new initiative known as Project Inclusion which will also include an examination of any racial disparity in military justice cases — will be put into action beginning in August and is meant to improve diversity across the force, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyMaryland GOP governor: Fauci has 'never let me' down Trump mocks push to rename Fort Bragg: 'We're going to name it after the Rev. Al Sharpton?' Pentagon mulling plan to ban Confederate flag without mentioning it by name: report MORE told reporters at the Pentagon.

A first step: The effort is the Army’s first major change in response to nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by Minneapolis police last month, and new scrutiny on racial disparities and biases within the military and other institutions.

As part of that move, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Esper says 'most believe' Beirut explosion was accident, contradicting Trump | Trump later says 'nobody knows yet' what happened in Lebanon | 61-year-old reservist ID'd as fourth military COVID-19 death Trump tempers his description of Beirut explosion as an attack: 'Nobody knows yet' Meadows defends Trump's description of Beirut explosion as an 'attack' MORE last week announced an internal review aimed at finding ways to "ensure equal opportunity across all ranks."

“We are all going to be traveling to our installations to meet with groups of soldiers in small venues and have very hard, uncomfortable conversations,” McCarthy said. “A lot has to be done to address the symbolic challenges that we face that could create divisiveness in our ranks … this will be an enduring effort for the Army.”

An ongoing debate: The widespread protests have also broadly led to debates about Confederate symbols. The Army said it was open to renaming its 10 bases named for Confederates before President TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE earlier this month tweeted his staunch opposition to doing so.

A new directive coming: Asked if he had heard from service members expressing discomfort with the names of the 10 bases, McCarthy said leaders, including Esper, have had discussions on a military-wide policy on the matter.

“Obviously the Commander-in-Chief put out specific guidance related to bases ... looking at what is the uniform policy for Confederate symbols, we’re working with the office of the secretary of defense on a policy related to that,” he said.

McCarthy would not say whether such a policy would overturn decisions made by other military services. The Marine Corps and U.S. Forces Korea have already banned the display of the Confederate battle flag, and the Navy says it will also do so.  

On the Hill: Congress also has a hand in the issue, with dozens of Senate Democrats this week introducing a bill that would require the Pentagon to strip Confederate names from military bases and other property within one year.

At the White House: Trump, meanwhile, has said he would veto a defense bill that requires changing Confederate names, and that he would “not even consider” renaming the 10 Army bases up for debate.

 

HOUSE DEFENSE BILL BACKS $1B PANDEMIC PREPAREDNESS FUND: The House Armed Services Committee’s version of the annual defense policy bill would create a $1 billion pandemic response and preparedness fund as the country continues to struggle with the coronavirus crisis.

The so-called chairman’s mark — the version of the bill drafted by Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Embattled Pentagon policy nominee withdraws, gets appointment to deputy policy job | Marines, sailor killed in California training accident identified | Governors call for extension of funding for Guard's coronavirus response The Hill's Coronavirus Report: iBIO Chairman and CEO Thomas Isett says developing a safe vaccine is paramount; US surpasses 150,000 coronavirus deaths with roughy one death per minute Overnight Defense: US to pull 11,900 troops from Germany | Troop shuffle to cost 'several billion' dollars | Lawmakers pan drawdown plan | Trump says he hasn't discussed alleged bounties with Putin MORE (D-Wash.) — of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would follow a bipartisan budget agreement for a total $740.5 billion defense budget for the Pentagon and other defense programs such as the Department of Energy nuclear programs.

The breakdown: Of that, $731.6 billion is within the committee’s jurisdiction, broken down into $667.6 billion in the base defense budget and $69 billion in a war fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account.

Avoiding conflicts: The bill so far avoids several hot-button issues, including renaming Army bases and other military property that is named after Confederate leaders. But those issues are expected to come up as amendments during next week’s committee markup.

“We have been pummeled with a whole lot of ideas from all different quarters about different aspects of racial justice, different things to do on COVID,” a committee aide told reporters Thursday.

“And what we decided was, we would do the things that we thought we could get bipartisan agreement on and then move on and let the members decide those big issues, both in the mark and on the floor. So our expectations are that there will be a lot of things that speak to these issues, and certainly the renaming of bases is a good example.”

What the fund would support: The pandemic fund would support Pentagon agencies' medical research and bolster small businesses in the defense industrial base.

The wall issue: Meanwhile, one of the main fights in last year’s NDAA — blocking the use of Pentagon funding on President Trump’s border wall — is dealt with in a less direct way this year.

Last year’s House-passed NDAA would have restricted the ability to transfer money between accounts, as well as created a blanket ban on using Pentagon funds for the wall. But those provisions were taken out of the bill during negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate, and the NDAA that was signed into law in December did not address the wall.

The aide said the panel was constrained in what it could include in this year’s bill after the bipartisan budget agreement passed last year precluded legislation from changing transfer authority.

Instead, aides highlighted that this year’s NDAA would create caps on emergency use of military construction funding, setting them at $100 million for the domestic projects and $500 million for overseas projects. Trump has taken $3.6 billion from military construction funding for the wall.

Deterring China: The bill would also create a $3.58 billion fund to deter China in the Indo-Pacific region. The fund would support bolstering U.S. presence in the region, pre-positioning equipment there and strengthening military exercises with allies and partners, among other aspects.

The so-called Indo-Pacific Reassurance Initiative, or something of a similar name, has gained bipartisan momentum in recent months. The Senate Armed Services Committee included in its version of the NDAA what it termed the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, starting with $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2021 and adding $5.5 billion in fiscal 2022.

The proposal for a China deterrence fund is being modeled on the European Deterrence Initiative created in 2014 to counter Russia.

Though the idea predates the coronavirus pandemic, it is moving forward at a time when U.S.-China tensions are running high because of the crisis.

Dems have hesitations: On Thursday, the committee aide told reporters there were several funding items in Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryOvernight Defense: US to pull 11,900 troops from Germany | Troop shuffle to cost 'several billion' dollars | Lawmakers pan drawdown plan | Trump says he hasn't discussed alleged bounties with Putin Lawmakers torch Trump plan to pull 11,900 troops from Germany Former White House physician Ronny Jackson wins Texas runoff MORE's (R-Texas) proposal Democrats could not get behind, such as $450 million from the military services’ unfunded priorities lists, $500 million of future OCO funding and $855 million to aide described as backfill for funding used on the border wall.

There are also differences in what the House bill would fund and what the Senate bill would fund, but a second aide expressed hope at working out the differences, saying “there’s a bipartisan consensus to try to get it done.”

Blocking troop drawdowns: The House Armed Services Committee’s version of the NDAA also seeks to put roadblocks on withdrawing U.S. troops from Africa and South Korea.

The chairman’s mark of the bill would require the Pentagon to report to Congress on the effects, implications and costs of a troop drawdown in Africa on military, diplomatic, development and humanitarian efforts.

It would also require a report on the effects of a drawdown within 90 days if the number of troops dips below 80 percent of current force posture.

Reports first surfaced earlier this year that Defense Secretary Mark Esper was eying slashing the number of U.S. troops in Africa as part of a global review of U.S. force posture to redirect troops to counter Russia and China. He later confirmed he was considering a reduction but insisted it would not be a full withdrawal.

 

ICYMI

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– The Hill: State Department: White supremacist terror 'on the rise and spreading'